It’s autumn: the air is cool, your nose is cold, your hands are stuffed in your pockets, or maybe you carry a cardboard coffee cup to keep them warm. You wear thicker socks and insist your children add a layer over their comfortable, worn-in t-shirts. Leaves crunch underfoot. A campfire burns nearby, crackling with sticks and small pieces of wood, warming those who stand around it. On one side, children are pounding wood with hammers, or sawing it into pieces, then placing smaller chunks on the fire. You hear a train whistle in the distance and kids laughing as they scamper around, playing tag and climbing logs…
Does this sound like a scene from a camping trip to you? or a cabin in the woods, perhaps? Little House on the Prairie? Add some snow and you’ve got a lovely Christmas card image.
But no, this is the scene at Setagaya Park, a large play space in Setagaya, which is a ward located a few miles from our home. And yes, they have open flames for about four campfires, carpentry tools for children to use freely, slides to climb with no railings at the top, shared balance bikes for the little ones, and a miniature train that will take you on a loop around a portion of the park.
What is up with this place?!
That’s what I kept thinking as I made sure my daughter didn’t venture too close to the flames, and kept an eye on my son as he and a friend tried fervently to saw a two-by-four in half with what I hoped was a relatively dull saw.
Meanwhile, kids raced up the wide slides behind me, which appeared to be made from a couple of large sheets of plywood, sanded down and painted. The kids pulled each other up and then flounced around at the top – all of them together! Please no one fall! I thought to myself. Emmy could climb up a smaller version of this slide, and when she did she found a little carved-out cubby at the top, perfect for her to climb into – perfect for her to go missing in!
The idea, I heard, is for children to take responsibility for themselves in a park like this. There were a couple of park staff working around the fire areas, but otherwise there was no lifeguard-type person making sure no one lost a finger with the saws or pounded their thumb instead of a nail. So, yes, I guess that leaves the children in charge. What an idea!
Setagaya Park is located just around the corner from Showa Women’s University, which is where Will’s rugby sessions take place. The team party was at this park after the last training session before the new year. The Shibuya International Rugby Club has provided a welcome opportunity for Will to try a new sport and make friends outside of school. We heard about it from a friend at school, and although we were not very familiar with the game, we were pleased Will wanted to try it. The coaches are very enthusiastic, the practices are skill-based but not overly structured or demanding. Everyone is there to have fun and learn. They are learning the skills of the game, but also, like any team sport, they are gaining life skills such as confidence, teamwork and cooperation. These are mainstays that our son needs and the team’s approach is a steady blend of competition and sportsmanship.
Letting the kids run around together was a great way to end the 2018 rugby season. It was fun to see them experiment, help each other and play in new ways. Though I wanted to hover over the more risky play areas, I tried to let the play happen, trusting that children must rarely get injured at Setagaya Park or this area would not exist. (There are other parks in Japan that offer this type of play, but generally, the open flames and sharp tools are not typical for Tokyo play spaces.)
At the end of the team’s pizza party, Will and his buddy Andrew begged us to try out the train, so they took a ride with their little sisters. And then the boys begged us to let them check out the go-carts or the skateboard area, but we were ready to get out of the chilly wind, so we skipped those parts. In the summer, there is a swimming pool, too.
Autumn in Tokyo has gotten chilly on us, reminding me of hot cider and wet leaves on the sidewalk. But the city manages to squeeze in an oasis here and there. Setagaya Park was fun for the whole family, the pizza was good, and the kids were worn out. A successful Sunday for sure!
**Stoppingtime Blog may be on a short hiatus for the Christmas holidays, when we return to the U.S. for some much-needed celebrations with family and friends. I’ll be back in 2019! Happy Holidays to all!**